Montana has a national reputation as one of the safest states to visit. Typically, tourists have to worry more about bears, wolves, and bison attacks than they have to worry about violent crime.
That said, the state has, on occasion, been plagued by another kind of monster: the serial killer.
In this article, we will take a look at the darker side of Big Sky Country by looking at the most infamous Montana serial killers.
Who is Montana’s Most Notorious Serial Killer?
The most notorious of all Montana serial killers is Wayne Nance, sometimes called the Missoula Mauler.
Nance was born in 1955 in Missoula and killed at least six people during his lifetime, though authorities believe he may have been responsible for more murders than he’s been attributed with.
He grew up in the Milltown and East Missoula areas of the city and graduated from Sentinel High School in 1974.
That same year, Nance murdered his first victim: Donna Pounds, who was found in the basement of her home in West Riverside, the victim of gunshot wounds, on April 11.
At the time, Nance was still a teenager and was friends with Donna Pounds’ children, and lived close to the murder scene.
Fast-forward to 1984, and women mysteriously began disappearing around Missoula. At the time, Nance was employed as a bouncer at the Cabin bar and has since been linked to three women who went missing.
The first woman was found in 1979, the victim of stab wounds, and has since been identified as Devonna Nelson.
The second woman was found on Crystal Creek in September 1985 with a gunshot wound to the head. As of 2022, she has still not been identified but is thought to be a victim of Nance.
The third woman was Marcella Bachman, whose body was discovered in a shallow grave on Deer Creek on Christmas Eve, 1985. She died from a gunshot wound to the head and was not identified until 2006 by DNA.
On December 12, 1985, a double homicide took place in Ravalli County, where a murderer entered the home of Mike and Teresa Shook, killed and robbed them, then set fire to their house, nearly killing four small children who were there.
A search warrant led to the discovery of missing items from the Shook house in Nance’s house.
Nance’s violent crime spree came to an end on September 3, 1986, when he attempted to attack the manager of the furniture store where he worked as a warehouse delivery worker.
Doug Wells was home with his wife Kris when he was contacted by Nance and asked for a flashlight. Once he let Nance into the house, Nance hit Doug on the head and forced Kris to restrain him before tying Kris in the bedroom.
Nance beat and stabbed Doug in the basement, but Doug was able to escape and followed Nance upstairs. He loaded his gun and shot Nance in the side, but Nance was able to retrieve his revolver and shoot three rounds at Doug, who was later treated for multiple wounds.
By the time 911 arrived at the scene, Nance was unconscious. He was pronounced dead the next day at St. Patrick’s Hospital.
Check out this YouTube video for the full story of Wayne Nance.
The Manhattan-Residing Montana Killer
David Meirhofer lived in New York City, but he committed all of his known murders in Gallatin County, which is ironically known for being a serene and stunning location.
His first victim was seven-year-old Susan Jaeger, whom he kidnapped from a campsite at Missouri Headwaters State Park in 1973.
A year later, he telephoned Susan’s mother, Marietta, to torment her, but Marietta outsmarted him and kept him on the phone long enough for the FBI to identify him.
He was arrested in September 1974 and paraded by the FBI down Main Street in Bozeman. He confessed to Susan’s murder, as well as the murder of Sandra Smallegan, whom he’d dated. She was 19 at the time of her murder.
He also confessed to two murders committed in the 1960s: 13-year-old Bernard Poelman and 12-year-old Michael Raney. Just hours after confessing to murdering his victims, Meirhofer hanged himself in his jail cell.
The Disturbing Case of Nathaniel Bar-Jonah
Arguably the most depraved serial killer in Montana history, Nathaniel Bar-Jonah moved to Great Falls in 1984 after spending time in prison and mental health institutions.
He had previously been charged with impersonating a police officer, abduction, sexual assault, and attempted murder.
After arriving in Great Falls, Bar-Jonah was soon put on probation after attempting to murder a young boy. He was later charged with kidnapping, sexual assault, and murder, most notably of 10-year-old Zach Ramsay, who disappeared in February 1996.
Bar-Jonah had shared his disturbing thoughts and fantasies with psychiatrists, which led to allegations of the cannibalism of Bar-Jonah’s victims whose bodies were not found.
In December 2004, Bar-Jonah was sentenced to 130 years in prison and died of causes related to his being morbidly obese in his Montana State Prison Cell four years later.
Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Bar-Jonah pleaded not guilty and did not take responsibility for any of his crimes.
Many aspects of the case are very gruesome and upsetting, but if you want to learn more you can check out this video where they discuss Nathaniel Bar-Jonah’s crimes in detail.
The Montana Connection to Joseph Edward Duncan III
Originally from North Carolina, Joseph Edward Duncan III has been linked to dozens of victims, at least five of which he murdered.
He became a sexual predator when he was still in his teens in the late 1970s and notably killed members of an entire family in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, in 2005.
After murdering Brenda Groene, her boyfriend Mark McKenzie, and her son Slade Groene, he kidnapped the two remaining children in the house, Dylan and Shasta, who were just nine and eight years old at the time, respectively.
He took them to a remote camp in the Lolo National Forest near St. Regis, Montana.
According to the Great Falls Tribune, Duncan murdered Dylan, but Shasta was rescued when she was spotted with Duncan at a Denny’s restaurant back in Idaho.
Duncan was arrested and extradited to California, where he was given a life sentence for the murder of 10-year-old Anthony Martinez back in 1997.
Duncan died in 2021 after declining treatment for terminal brain cancer.
You can watch a detailed video of Joseph Edward Duncan’s life and crimes here.
Carl Panzram’s link to Montana
The crimes of Carl Panzram extend far beyond the boundaries of Montana. He committed several murders right across the U.S. during his lifetime and may have even murdered a boy in Angola.
But his criminal career began in Montana when he was arrested for burglary in Butte in 1906. He was sentenced to one year in the Montana State Reform School in Miles City.
While at the reform school, it is believed Panzram killed a guard and escaped to Helena. He enlisted in the army after lying about his age and was sent to Fort William Henry Harrison.
Before long, he was dishonorably discharged for theft and sent to a federal penitentiary in Fort Leavenworth.
Years later, he returned to Montana and was arrested under the alias Jefferson Davis, again for burglary. He was sentenced to one year at the Montana State Prison, and following his release, raped and murdered several victims across the country.
Eventually, he was sentenced to death for murdering a prison guard, and executed in 1930 by hanging. In total, Panzram confessed to killing 22 people.
Was the Zodiac Killer imprisoned in Montana?
At the time of writing, the identity of the Zodiac Killer remains unknown. The killer was active in California in the 1960s and murdered at least five victims, though they confessed to 37 murders.
After sending cryptic letters to regional newspapers giving details of their crimes, the murderer drew international attention.
While the identity of the killer has never been discovered, it’s possible that they at least spent time in Montana. One of the killer’s victims, who survived the attack, told police that the killer identified themselves as having “some double name, like Fern Lock or something .” (per Billings Gazette)
The officer interviewing the victim theorized that the name could have referenced “Lodge”, as in Deer Lodge, where Montana State Prison is located.
As a result, numerous former inmates were investigated, though the case has still not been solved.
Montana Serial Killers – Conclusion
Montana is a state that most people associate with all things beauty. It is a place where travelers go to escape life and experience adventure.
But just like every other state, Montana has also been the scene of several brutal murders at the hands of deranged serial killers. Thankfully, most of the killers on this list met their justice.